Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Ice Pirates 1984 *** 1/4

Dir: Stewart Raffill

Stars: Robert Urich, Michael D. Roberts, Mary Crosby, Anjelica Huston, Ron Perlman, John Matuszak

It is the far future where flights across the galaxy are common but water is scarce. People who grew up in the eighties will recall how frightened we all were that humans would developinterstellar travel and find there wasn't any place to get a drink. Of course nowadays we've known for a while there is probably water on Mars so this all seems laughable to young people who can begin each day with confidence that if they travel into space they won't end up like the Sesame Street Agua guy.

Robert Urich, looking grungily like the missing link between Han Solo and Jack Sparrow, leads a group of scallywags and ne'er-do-wells through space, their mission to steal water from people who have a lot of it. We can take comfort that the people they are stealing from are all pure evil and imperialistic, natch, a dynamic which in movies automatically makes thieves heroes. Joining him on the crew is Anjelica Huston as a warrior woman of space, and a youthful Ron Perlman, who ends up looking strangely small here in comparison with co-stars Urich and John Matuszak. Matuszak joins the cast as the plot goes along and they find themselves imprisoned by evil, evil galactic evil people, among whom is the lovely and slightly less evil Princess Karina. She is portrayed sultrilily by Mary Crosby, daughter of Bing. I can't help but speculate part of the idea of casting her was because, since Princess Leia was played by the daughter of a famous singer, maybe that would be the charm for this picture. Whatever the reason, she actually comes off as more royal than Carrie Fisher, though less sassy. I recall Crosby playing a henchwoman of Lex Luthor in about the third episode of Lois and Clark. And speaking of performers who later appeared in nineties TV shows, the cast also features Michael D. Roberts as the robot expert of the crew. Roberts would later appear in an episode of Seinfeld as an expenses accountant in the Peterman company, the one who demands Elaine produce the very expensive fur hat George bought on her account and then lost. Co-stanza!

It soon develops that Karina's father is lost in space, having gone on a quest to find the legendary 7th world, and she recruits the pirates to help her go off in search of him. This doesn't fit well with the evil rulers of the galaxy, led by a sickly John Carradine and a nasty Jeremy West, who are in hot pursuit.

There are a ton of b-highlights to this film, which is why I give it a solid three stars by the criteria of this blog (with the extra quarter for my own sentimental attachment); chases through a futuristic city (the long shots of which use models from Logan's Run), strange vehicles, swordfights, slapstick robots, an army of bikini clad warrior women, bizarre aliens, a prissy living head without a body, and more. One of the notable aspects is the strange naturalism to the direction, which seems to take its cues from Alien, with a grainier look like perhaps Raiders of the Lost Ark or even Missing in Action. The approach may seem strangely incongruous in what is purportedly a space spoof - which audiences, especially in a post-Spaceballs world, would expect to be brighter and splashier. And yet, it's among the idiosyncracies that have maintained my fascination with this minor cult film ever since I first videotaped it from TV in the eighties. There are also some gripping cameos, particularly Robert Symonds as Lanky Nibs, a fellow space pirate who was caught in a space warp and rapidly aged without reaching the 7th world. I am always impressed when an actor can appear in one scene of a movie, as a character who is supposed to have a history with the other characters, and seem as if they have always been there. That is good acting, no matter the context, or perhaps especially if the context is as farflung and otherworldly as it is here.

Better than Star Wars! the frequent claim of those who champion one or another of the various knockoffs and wannabes that followed in the years after the 1977 original. It makes a good shock value stink bomb to throw into a room for some attention grabbing, but also ends up looking pretty futile and desperate. Hey everybody, look at me, I don't like that thing that everybody else likes! I'm so different!

I certainly won't make that claim in the case of The Ice Pirates, but it is some good clean eighties space fun and features some good performances that are maybe a bit above the level of the script, which nonetheless manages a lot of amusing space zingers and some bizarre twists. Yes, the movie often feels like it's being made up as it goes along, but I find in about half the cases where a film feels like that, I enjoy it. This is one of those times.


  1. You know, I saw this movie several times at the theater as a kind. I loved it. I watched it even more on HBO in the mid 80s. But for the life of me, I can't remember a thing about it. Was there a scene where a small robot gets run over or something?

  2. Yes, there is, and a bigger robot is crying over it. I think people find that scene tragic, from comments I read on IMDB - but they're robots, they can be rebuilt, I imagine.

  3. Yeah, I think that one upset me as well. But I was 5 or 6 when I saw it. That is probably why it stuck in my head for almost 30 years.

  4. Yes, I can see how that would be upsetting! I was probably a jaded 13 or so by the time I saw it, lol...